He Said, She Said: Arrival Review (2016)


This review contains minor spoilers.

He Said, She Said

Neal Says

Amy, as someone who has watched and read a lot of science fiction, Arrival may just be one of the smartest alien first contact movies to ever come out of Hollywood . . . even smarter than Contact, one of my favorites.  In a non-invasion scenario what will be the most critical aspect of that first contact situation?  Communication.

Arrival doesn’t use memorable musical tones, or Reese’s Pieces, or enigmatic black monoliths.  Instead it uses language and how our limited and linear interpretation of language may be a crutch that is keeping the human race from reaching a higher potential.  Amy Adams plays gifted linguist Louise Banks who is tasked to find a way to communicate with one of twelve Heptapod ships that have mysteriously appeared on Earth.  She does so while struggling with memories of a broken marriage and a daughter who died of a rare disease.

The Heptapod’s language breaks all paradigms established by our own terrestrial languages.  Their symbolic language has no correlation to their spoken language.  While our languages (and use of them) are two dimensional, linear, structured and are correlated to our spoken languages.  The Heptapod language is circular, chaotic, with a three dimensional topography, and with no beginning or end.

Why is this important?  Because there’s a theory, called linguistic relativity (or the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis) that holds that “the structure of a language affects its speakers’ cognition or world view.”  Grammatical differences can potentially dictate differences in how people of different cultures perceive the world.  Now imagine the different perceptions of the world from a culture with linear, 2D, vocally correlated language, to one with a circular (non-linear), 3D, vocally uncorrelated language.

Amy Says

If you made it all the way through Neal’s review, congratulations! Mine is not going to be nearly as brainy. Neal, I can’t give you too bad of a time as I agree with everything you have to say in your long-winded review. In fact, if I had seen this film when I was taking linguistics in college, I may actually have enjoyed the class.

Unlike Contact, Arrival doesn’t bombard us with the religious implications of first contact, but it does force us to face our fear of the “other.” The Heptapod ships have landed in twelve different countries around the world with the various governments taking charge of the landing sites. They bring in linguists and scientists to help communicate with the aliens to ask “What is your purpose on Earth?” The fear is that they are an invading force, and some of the governments want to attack.

In the beginning of this world-wide event, most of the countries are sharing information with each other. They only have an 18-hour window between visits with the Heptapods, so this free exchange of knowledge is crucial to successfully unlocking the alien language. Unfortunately, the fear of the “other” extends to human beings, as well. China refuses to share information and wants to attack with Russia and Sudan falling in line. When Louise Banks makes a breakthrough, Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) fears what they learn and shuts off communication with the rest of the world. Soon all communication collapses.

In face of this communication blackout, fear takes over and this is when things go very wrong. I don’t want to give too much away, so I’ll move on to the other reason why I love this film.


What if a culture with a language structure that views time as linear and unchangeable encounters a culture that views time as circular and changeable?  What if a human could learn to think circularly, or recall circular memories? This is the challenge facing Louise, and without spoiling too much, she has a gift . . . and the Heptapods she is interacting with can see it.  With it she has to solve the riddle of their arrival to bring the panicking world back from the brink of armageddon.  Arrival has a very Sixth Sense feel to it.  After it was over I started thinking back to all the flashbacks (or flash forwards?) to try to put the pieces together, to try and remember things I’d missed or foreshadowing that was happening.  This is definitely a movie that merits a second viewing to fully appreciate.

The one carrot left dangling was the Heptapod’s message that they were helping humans “now” because they would need their help in 3000 years.  It’s left completely unresolved.  Did this mean literally 3000 years in their future or our future?  Are they even the same future?

Arrival is a much welcomed cerebral and emotional science fiction film that also carries a significant sense of tension.  Where it shines is connecting Louise’s personal memories to help solve first contact communication, as well as the originality of the aliens.  It’s refreshing to watch an alien contact movie where they aren’t here to destroy us or steal our water (groan!).  But I fear that, despite the glowing reviews, it will fade away from theaters because like the concepts it’s projecting the structure of viewing Arrival itself is not linear.  This can be offputting for a lot of viewers.  But, I believe it will become a highly regarded cult science fiction classic like Contact.
4.5 out of 5 stars

Dr. Banks meets Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) on the helicopter ride to Montana. As a scientist, Donnelly disagrees with Banks that language is the crucial first step. They soon learn to appreciate each other’s strengths and work together to crack the code. As their relationship grows, Ian is there for Louise when she starts to hallucinate, seemingly from overwork and a lack of sleep.

Arrival is based on The Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang. I haven’t read the story, but I really want to in light of how much I enjoyed this film. As her daughter Hannah’s life unfolds through Louise’s memories, the audience begins to put the pieces of this puzzle together.

I highly recommend you see this film right away. When you do, come back and leave a comment. I want to chat about some of my other thoughts and theories but don’t want to put too many spoilers in the review. Louise asks Ian a question near the end of the movie, I want to know how you would answer it!
4.5 out of 5 stars






Words © 2016-2022, Neal Ulen. All rights reserved.
Images/videos cited © to their respective owner(s).

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